Growing up in Milwaukee, I lived under the impression that every place on Earth had at least three taverns on every block. These shot-and-a-beer watering holes were only distinguishable from the neighborhood homes by a giant lighted sign hanging from the corner of the building, announcing proudly the proprietor’s name as well as the term “bar,” or “tap” or “tavern” or some such euphemism for “beer pumping station.”
We moved to the South Side of the city when I was 4 years old and as we wove from the streets of Cudahy through St. Francis to Bay View, I calculated distances by taverns. There was The Lazy Z, John and Connie’s, Club 300, Butch’s and more. The last outpost along the way before we reached home was Izzy’s Tap. For reasons past my understanding, I found myself desperate to go in there as a child. Each time we passed through town, I would ask my father, “Can we stop at Izzy’s?”
You have to understand that this was not an abnormal or abhorrent behavior associated with a misspent childhood. This was a part of the culture growing up when and where I did.
When my grandmother’s husband, the infamous Uncle Harry, would go for an errand or two during my frequent summer visits, we would often find ourselves stopping at some shitty local bar. John and Connie’s was one of my favorites because they had cherry soda on tap, bags of no-name-brand potato chips behind the bar and an ancient pool table. They also had roomers upstairs from the bar, one of whom was lovingly named Dude. I have no idea who this guy was or why I remember him, but occasionally, he’d amble down the stairs and enter the bar from the door between the pinball machine and men’s room to grab a mid-day beer and socialize with Harry.
Mom and Dad both played softball for numerous taverns around the area, including Dick and Debbie’s. At some point, Dick and Debbie went on the splits and it became “Dick’s Gold Mine.” They also played for some place called “The Lounge” if memory served. Once the game was over, the team went to the bar, where my folks plied me with enough quarters to keep the Space Invaders game hopping and me out of trouble.
Eventually, as I got older (read: 8 years old) they stopped playing sports for those places and decided it wasn’t a keen place to raise a kid. I stopped palling around with Harry during the summer and my trips to various liquor establishments became few and far between.
Still, Izzy’s held that magical sway over me. It is never quite clear why, although I think it was that my father refused to even consider the bar worthy of a stop, thus making it all the more important to me.
When Dad took part in a bowling league one year when I was in my teens, a guy named Dean on the team mentioned the place. Dad explained the fixation I had with the place and the guy just laughed.
“It’s a tiny shithole,” Dean said. “When you go in there, you’ll be the only person in the place. Lenny will come out of the back in his housecoat, turn on the tape machine for some music and start telling you the story about the football.
Lenny was the owner and operator and had taken over the operations from his father-in-law some time in the 1960s or 1970s, depending on who was telling the story. The tape machine was an old reel-to-reel item that apparently was playing the same music that played back in 1940 when Izzy’s opened. The football was an autographed Green Bay Packers ball with a vintage of the early 1960s.
Still, the guy explained, it was worth a beer, so he and Dad stopped for one after bowling. The experience was exactly as the guy had described.
I was more than a bit steamed that Dad went to the place without me. It wasn’t really much to talk about, Dad said. Still, it was the principle of the thing.
Eventually, I moved away from home, turned 21 and took my turn frequenting the more “college-friendly” bars around Madison. They had loud music, dance floors and drinks that incorporated about 93 types of alcohol. For the first three years of my legal drinking life, heading to a “tavern” for a “beer” wasn’t even an option.
The first year I returned to Wisconsin from Missouri for a holiday break, Dad and I decided to do some “dude stuff,” and we ended up shooting pool for several hours and several beers. On the way home, we inevitably passed Izzy’s.
“Can we stop? Please?” I practically begged.
Dad apparently either had one too many or one too few to argue, so he pulled the car over and we entered the hallowed halls of Izzy’s.
It was exactly as Dean described.
Lenny walked out of the back, turned down the lights a bit, turned on the tape machine and asked us what we wanted.
“Don’t get a tap beer,” my dad whispered, pointed at a spider web on the spigot.
We ordered two cans of beer, which Lenny retrieved from a refrigerator with the old-fashioned pull-down “slot machine” handle on it.
The cans had dust on them, which we surreptitiously wiped off and then opened.
Lenny then launched into his tale about how he got the football.
All those years to enter a place about the size of the average living room with three tables and about a dozen stools at the bar… Totally worth it.
In the intervening years, the place was open intermittently as Lenny’s health began to fail. When we moved back to Wisconsin seven or eight years ago, I remember thinking about Lenny and the place when we would drive past it on the way to Mom and Dad’s.
“Lenny’s sick,” Dad said when I asked him about the seemingly vacant building. “I last saw him a couple years back and he’s using a walker.”
The building seemed to remain in limbo for a few years. The giant Blatz sign remained outside, the Andeker neon sat in the window, but no other sign of life ever really emerged.
About six months ago, we drove past around 5 on a Friday and saw the “OPEN” sign brightly glowing.
I would have begged to go, but we were on the way to dinner and some other event. By the time we drove back, the place was dark. I often wondered if it was an illusion.
Last week, my Mom left for one of her “bucket list” trips that took her through Russia, thus leaving my Dad home alone for a week.
“Please check in on him,” Mom whispered as she hugged me prior to heading out for 10 days.
So, Dad came up for a ballgame last week and I came down today to prepare for our monthly card show.
In between stacking tubs and building sets, we took a jaunt out for dinner. As we drove past Izzy’s, the sign was alit again.
“If that’s open on the way home,” I told him, “we’re stopping for a beer.”
Sure enough, at 8 p.m., the Blatz sign was dark, but the neon “OPEN” sign cut through the night sky as Dad pulled over.
The first stunning thing was that the place was packed. We barely found two seats at the end of the bar. Apparently the after work crowd was making a go of it at the corner tap.
Second, the old refrigerator was gone, replaced with a modern cooler, the sign atop it proudly noted “Izzy’s Tap.”
“If they sold the place to someone outside the family, they probably had to update the hell out of this place,” Dad explained.
The barkeep took our order, two tap beers, which seemed a safe bet in this more active environment. I placed a $20 on the bar for both beers and was presented with $17 in change for two huge schooners of Miller Lite.
“Do you own the place?” I asked the guy.
“No. The guy at the end of the bar does. Why?”
“We knew Lenny,” I explained. “Is he still around?”
“Oh… No… He died four years ago, going on five.”
Turns out the guy at the end of the bar was Bill, Lenny’s nephew. As he gladhanded his way down the bar, he ran into us and we explained who we were and what Izzy’s meant to us.
Bill went behind the bar and retrieved a manila folder, filled with photos and cards. One was an official invitation to the grand opening of Izzy’s tap, mailed to the important people around the city, dated 1940. Photos of Lenny and Packers star Ray Nitschke were in there as were photos of softball and horseshoe teams. Dean was among those featured, along with several other guys my dad knew.
Bill told stories about Lenny and Izzy’s and all sorts of stuff.
I mentioned the football.
“It’s still here,” Bill said, pointed to a glass case near the base of the back bar.
He then excused himself to chat with a few other people.
“You done?” Dad asked, draining his glass.
“Yep.” I picked up the 10 and the 5, leaving two bucks behind.
“Just leave a dollar,” Dad whispered.
I ignored him and walked away from the bar as all of our new-found friends wished us well.
“That was an 80 percent tip on two beers,” Dad pressed as we walked to the car.
I wasn’t about to argue with him about his math or the cash value of the excursion.
Some things are just worth it.